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Dirty Hearts at the Old Red Lion Theatre | Review

Do you remember the series “Thirtysomething”? It ran from 1987–1991 and I have to say it never really appealed to me, but the show was considered to be jolly good television by those that know about such things. Anyhow, writer Paul Murphy has decided that the story of 30-something people dealing with the difficulties of life and relationships is something that’s missing from the theatrical scene and so his new comedy-drama Dirty Hearts has come to the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington.

Dirty Hearts
Dirty Hearts

Laura (Isabel Della-Porta) and Ben (Pierro Niel-Mee) have some good news to impart. After in the words of friends ‘being on a break’ the couple have decided to get back together. Naturally, the first people they want to tell are their closest friends Simon (John MacCormick) and Julienne (Allegra Marland). Expecting happiness and support, they are surprised by the negative reaction shown by Julienne. Actually, that is an understatement. Krakatoa exploded with less violence than Julienne does when she hears the news. But no matter, Laura and Ben are in love, Simon and Julienne are in love and, as good friends always do, they will be able to get over any little falling out between them, won’t they?

Now it’s not often I watch a show and find myself actively disliking every character in the show but in this case, that’s how I felt pretty much all the way through. I warmed slightly to Simon in the final few minutes of the production as his character finally let himself go and allowed all the suppressed emotions to flow out in spectacular style. Even then though I found by the end I wasn’t that worried or even interested in what happened next for the four.

Whilst realistic, they all felt a bit too much like a bunch of thirty-something Islington, educated middle-class types that enjoy showing off to each other about how good they are in supporting the deserving, whilst ensuring their own lives are never negatively affected.

Paul Murphy’s story is rather good. While some elements were obvious to me from the start, there were surprises along the way as we delved deeper into the relationships. The next sentence will be hard to write as I don’t want to give too much away but also want to whet your appetite a bit. I was particularly intrigued by the hinted-at manipulation by one of the characters of another, potentially causing them to compromise not only their relationship but also their professional integrity. There are also some pithy, and at times unexpectedly funny, one-liners in the script including the line that has now become my favourite ever said by Julienne “Stress is just a made-up word to sell wellness to w*****s.” I seriously want to see that on a tee-shirt. There are also moments that really caused me to think about things outside of the play. For example, there is a wonderful analysis of how the number of drinks affects a person which led me to consider at what points in a night out, drinking Terry does certain things. Turns out I, like Ben in the play, have certain trigger points for my behaviour as I knock them back.

Sophia Pardon’s set is a beautiful mix of shiny silver with white panels and boxes covered in brush strokes, and Director Rupert Hands has made the unusual decision to keep everyone on stage throughout the show, which I have to say really works giving a lovely image of people unable to see what is happening to the people around them. I also loved the movement in time both backwards and forwards showing events that led up to scenes that the audience has already seen and giving an insight into the thinking of the characters and their reactions to things. Everything is enhanced by Hector Murray’s lighting and Jamie Lu’s sound which uses James Blake’s plangent songs to great effect during the splits between scenes.

Overall, while I honestly didn’t like the characters, I have to praise the strength of the acting in bringing them to life and making me believe in them enough to dislike them. I also think the story and script has really surprised me in causing me to consider my own motivation for doing things. Am I a good person who does good things or do I do good things to make me feel good, and either way does it matter if the reason justifies the end result? Dirty Hearts delivered for me in ways I wasn’t expecting. Not the most likeable of characters, but some great performances in a nice staging, make for a pleasant and thought-provoking evening.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Simon wants a better world. Laura knows it’s not so easy. Ben always weighs the cost. Julienne knows every decision has a price. Love, friendship and a $150 million painting. But which of them is the real thing?

Designer – Sophia Pardon
Lighting Designer – Hector Murray
Stage Manager – Lydia Holford
Assistant Director – Enrico Liou

Isabel Della-Porta
John MacCormick
Allegra Marland
Pierro Niel-Mee

Pine Street Productions present
By Paul Murphy
Directed by Rupert Hands.
Tues 5th – Sat 30th April 2022

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